AMTRAK still off-track
July 25, 2001 5:58 PM   Subscribe

AMTRAK still off-track (NY Times link) Even before living in France I loved trains. So it pains to read that AMTRAK is stillheading towards its last run. Do you progressive, SUV-hating Mefi people have any thoughts on how AMTRAK might get its act together (or whether it's all SUV-futile)?
posted by ParisParamus (32 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Maybe groups of States should take over AMTRAK's duties? Even the Acela Express isn't that fast. Donne-moi un veritable TGV!
posted by ParisParamus at 6:00 PM on July 25, 2001

maybe we can have a drive!

i'd pay a few bucks for every SUV an amtrack can plow full at full speed!
posted by jcterminal at 6:13 PM on July 25, 2001

The other night on PBS, I happened to catch three hours of "great rail journey" specials, one on Australia, the other on the western US. I enjoyed it all immensely.

I've always preferred train travel over cars or planes, but in the US it's very inconvenient. Basically, it costs as much as flying, and it takes as long as a car. Now I know that's not that big of a deal when you're in a nice observation car, looking out at the mountains, but that's really what holds trains back here. They're great for people that have plenty of time to get where they are going, for most though, time is a luxury. Also, it seems that the Amtrak station in most towns is either in the seedy downtown section or the industrial outskirts. But if there were bullet trains from SF to LA and San Diego, or at least LA to Vegas, and all up and down the eastern seaboard, train travel would skyrocket in popularity.

I'll definitely be taking a vacation by rail this year though, the Oakland -> Portland -> Seattle -> Vancouver line looks too nice to ignore.

Oh how I wish bullet trains were over here, I think Amtrak would finally capture a critical mass of audience that could support them and turn a profit.
posted by mathowie at 6:15 PM on July 25, 2001

A couple of months ago, I was getting ready to move from Missouri to Michigan, so my girlfriend (who was staying in Missouri) and I looked into Amtrak. What the heck, we figured... I'd have the time to travel, it'd be fun to ride a train, and we thought that it would be cheaper than flying.

We were wrong. AMTRAK costs practically the same as flying and takes longer. It's less hassle than driving, but it's more expensive and you might as well fly.
posted by gd779 at 6:18 PM on July 25, 2001

Perhaps the States could take over the duties of Amtrak cooperatively. Only, up here in Washington I think Oregon would be remiss in ever entering into such shared role venture. Simply put, Oregon gets things done. Olympia studies itself into millions of dollars worth of inconclusiveness and ever more money for ever more studies. That said, I believe a robust high speed rail system (or systems) in populated corridors would be the most smart investment the coastal states and cities could ever make. Something to the tune of thirty bucks from Seattle to Portland round trip (if not graciously less), each way in under an hour would make Amtrak or whoever facilitates it, profitable in very little time, just by sheer ridership via it's accessibility and convenience.

As a side:
There was this conservative talk show radio host in Denver (Mike Rosen) who was unabashedly against a light rail line shadowing I-25 as it wouldn't be used and would be far too expensive. It always brought me to thinking; who will it be, who will be waving at who, one whizzing by and the other stationary? He did Lexus and Jaguar radio spots too.
posted by crasspastor at 6:24 PM on July 25, 2001

In most of the country, serious high speed rail is not viable, but in certain corridors, it is. Why isn't it there? Blame lots of hidden road and air subsidies and lots of politicians with serious imagination problems (or perhaps, they've simply never flirted with a woman or five on a train on the C├┤te Azur).
posted by ParisParamus at 6:24 PM on July 25, 2001

The problem with Amtrak is mainly that the service sucks. From what I'[ve heard from friends and relatives taking trains recently, Amtrak could care less about customer service. Add to that, it's often slower than driving and often as expensive as flying. It's not surprising that Amtrak isn't doing well.

I would love to see more high speed train service in the states. At least in NYC it's a helluvalot easier to get to a train station via public transportation than to the airport, plus you don't have to wait an hour beforehand for all the security mishigas.
posted by andrewraff at 7:21 PM on July 25, 2001

Rail is economic in Europe because of population density. Rail in most of the US is not economic because the cities are spread out so far. The distance from Seattle to San Diego is similar to the distance from Berlin to Madrid, and if you started from Paris and travelled east the distance from LA to NYC you'd be in Kazakhstan.

Europe has the population of the US confined to an area smaller than the part of the US west of the Rockies. With the kinds of wide open spaces the US has, rail can't compete. I don't believe that Amtrak can ever be self-sustaining.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:51 PM on July 25, 2001

The real money in RR is freight, because it is the most efficient way to move goods over land (in fact, its just as efficient as moving them by sea). Take away the freight/efficiency, and no one is willing to put up the capital to get things done.
posted by Ptrin at 7:56 PM on July 25, 2001

But in certain heavily populated areas in the US, high speed commuter rail is viable, if not becoming more and more neccessary and popularly sought (NYC, New England). My thoughts exactly though, that long distance rail service or a fast, modern line say (or a decent old line), from Albuquerque to Denver is a total money pit.
posted by crasspastor at 8:04 PM on July 25, 2001

I took many trains in the 90s, because I had a severe fear of flying. Amtrak cured me. Slow trains. Old cars. Surly service. Grim food. Toilets that didn't work. Arrival times like "3:37 AM." Breakfast sausages that looked like something an old dog would excrete after eating a shingle. Passengers who decided to start bringing up a lung around 4:17 AM.

Once we spent an hour, in the dark, in the yards in Chicago. One of the ticket-takers eventually explained that an electrical cord had gotten kinked, like a garden hose, and this shut off all the electricity.

The trains than serve the Eastern BosNYWash corridor are okay, but Amtrak elsewhere is just an expensive way to avoid one's fear of flying. As I eventually learned, it's cheaper and faster to just get hammered and get on the damn plane.
posted by lileks at 8:31 PM on July 25, 2001

The trains than serve the Eastern BosNYWash corridor are okay

Actually, they don't suck, it's still fairly embarrassing. New York <> Boston should be a 2.25 hour trip, not a 3 or 4 hour one. Same for Washington. There are lots of business people and scads of affluent college students which should make this viable, even profitable. Miami <> Orlando's another perfect market, as is SF <> San Diego. Politicians are to blame.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:57 PM on July 25, 2001

What I did to try and support Amtrak was ride it once or twice a month for the past 6 months. Does that count?

Acela is really fucking cool, too, PP... have you tried it?
posted by anildash at 9:28 PM on July 25, 2001

Car & Driver magazine supports Amtrak: "And so, it seems, the plane versus train versus highway debate will continue over distances of 300 or fewer miles, at least until Amtrak is able to expend much-needed funds to upgrade its road beds and elevate the Acela to its full speed potential. A shift of passengers to the railroad would relieve the almost intolerable crowding of airports and urban highways. That would be good news for all of us, regardless of how we travel."
posted by mrbula at 9:33 PM on July 25, 2001

Acela is really fucking cool, too, PP... have you tried it?

Yes. It's cool, but too expensive. Instead of $120, it should be $85. That would cause people to upgrade from the $60 slow fare. Plus, it would pull some people out of cars and out of LaGuardia: introducing people to how pleasant it is to have lots of room and be able to work is key, but AMTRAK doesn't get this in any meaningful way. Plus, Penn Station is a toilet, so the overall experience is significiantly diminished.
Also, there's no Burgundy out the window!
posted by ParisParamus at 9:44 PM on July 25, 2001

I've traveled on Amtrak a bit when I was a kid and aside from the minor details brought up here, I found it more pleasant than flying. There's room to walk around and if you have a private cabin, it's especially nice. However, this is also a problem. Coach isn't so bad, but trying to get a little privacy costs a huge amount of money. If it were less expensive, it might seem more worthwhile, despite the longer travel time.
posted by valerie at 9:51 PM on July 25, 2001

taking the acela between home (boston) and school (philly) is cheaper than flying, and since it's so much easier to get to and from the train stations than the airports, it's not all that slower than a plane trip would be. I really do hope survives, if only for my selfish traveling reasons.
posted by rabi at 10:02 PM on July 25, 2001

i take the metro express between baltimore and NYC A LOT and i'll tell you how amtrak can get it together.
1) they need to stop all of the trains between long distances. who in the hell is going to pay for a train from baltimore to atlanta that takes 18 hours and costs the same or more than a flight that takes 1.5 hours? there isn't enough demand and it's a waste of money.
2) increase the number of trains betwen major cities that are 3 hours driving distance from eachother. ie, baltimore, philly, NYC, boston, etc. of course i'm talking east coast but the same applies to other regions.
3) the accela fuckin SUCKS. why would i pay $60 more to save 10 minutes? it is a complete waste of money. 3 words - mag lev trains. the trains need to be FAST and have fewer stops. make it worth my while to take a train. the metro takes me 2hr 30min from baltimore to NYC and the accela takes 2hr 20min. i asked amtrak about this and they said there are speed limitations in many areas as well as so many stops that it's difficult for them to increase the speeds. sad sad sad....
4) add more cars during all hours of the day that do not allow cell phones. if i get one more annoying asshole sitting behind me talking loudly in the back of my head yelling to the people on the other end of the cell phone i am going to turn around and pound their face and then take their cell phone and do the mexican hat dance on it. all i want to do is sit there and read, do work on my laptop or sleep. you wouldn't even believe how annoying it is having people on their cell phones.
5) add satellite internet access or satellite tv. that would kick ass.

let me tell you...amtrak service is excellent. i have only had very minor problems. the train is always on time. i can get to the train station 15min before my train is scheduled to arrive, walk in and get my ticket from the auto-ticket machines and then hop on the train. the train has a power outloet at each seat for my laptop or whatever so i can sit there and do work or watch movies. there is a nice little food car to get a snack. you can stretch your legs out and a lot of times there isn't anyone next to you so you can really strecth out and even lay down and take a nap. the conductors are all very cool people. amtrak is a great service but it needs ot be utilized the right way and now it isn't. =[
posted by suprfli at 10:27 PM on July 25, 2001

"There was this conservative talk show radio host in Denver (Mike Rosen) who was unabashedly against a light rail line shadowing I-25 as it wouldn't be used and would be far too expensive."

or maybe it would be the fact that he wouldn't be able to be listened to while stuck in traffic?

posted by jcterminal at 11:33 PM on July 25, 2001

My girlfriend lives in Hartford. Hartford's location is a pain in the arse: equidistant from NYC and Boston, close enough to make it inconvenient to fly, far enough away to make it inconvenient to drive.

And having taken the slow Amtrak from Hartford to Penn Sewer, um, Station, with a three-hour delay on the return, I now have new respect for Virgin Trains. (And even to take the Acela, we'd have take the chugga-train down to New Haven; Herself would rather drive down, and park in the station car park.)

With the geography of the US being what it is, Amtrak should follow the Australians, and abandon the "great railway journey" coast-to-coast stuff as anything other than a tourist business. (heh, mathowie.) Fast commuter rail on the routes currently flown by expensive little SAAB twin-props would make a hell of a difference.
posted by holgate at 4:43 AM on July 26, 2001

One big advantage of the East Coast (mid-Atlantic and north) is great train service. It is easy to hop on a train from DC to NYC to hang out for a day or two. The price is about the same as flying and with the traffic snarls and needing to be at the airport early the time from DC to downtown Manhattan is nearly the same, give or take 15 minutes in either direction.

I completely agree that the passenger train downfall is politics. The automobile lobbies pushed for more road in the late 60s and 70s when fuel was cheap and the roads really were not crowded as there suburbs and exurbs were not as dense or broad as they are now. The passenger rail industry was getting government funds by the 70s. Getting government funds decreased the ability of this group to lobby for funds. Many of the rail providers were also in the automotive industry. There was an expanding market for cars with better margins of return than there was for trains. The lobbying pressure was pushing roads for more cars. The politicians followed the money.

The U.S. has developed a strongly independent mindset that see cars as an extension of their individual freedoms and trains are equated with those socialist countries in Europe that restrain peoples freedoms. This mindset has damaged a humanly wonderful method of travelling. With all the problems that the airline industry is having the U.S. government decides not to help provide an alternative (or make the alternative better) and pushes Amtrak further down.

The British have damaged their rail system through privatization. Rail like roads are a public good and need to be seen as such and therefore treated as such. Not only in the U.S., but abroad.
posted by vanderwal at 5:02 AM on July 26, 2001

or maybe it would be the fact that he wouldn't be able to be listened to while stuck in traffic?

It took some effort, but I listened to Lynn Samuels and Matt Drudge (and cringing from him) most of the way from Boston to NYC on Amtrak a few months ago. And there's something especially cool about DISCRETELY using a cell phone on a fast train.
posted by ParisParamus at 7:07 AM on July 26, 2001

I have to disagree with everyone saying we need to dump the long-hall lines. No. We need to make them as fast as driving and competitively priced, that's all that necessary.

I live in Minneapolis. I've traveled to Chicago, Boston and Portland from here, each trip taking just a little more time that it would've to drive to the same destination. (Actually, the trip to Portland was significantly faster than a car would be.) With the insane gas prices of late, the prices for train travel were actually competitive. For under $300 bucks (using a little planning) I could get a bunk; breakfast, lunch and dinner (included); and conversations with a bunch of interesting people I'd never meet otherwise. In the process I've saved my car from more wear and avoided the unbearable stress of sitting in Chicago traffic.

The idea of Amtrak getting liquidated keeps me up at night. Considering the sorry state of this nation's infrastructure, we cannot afford to loose another alternative to our congested freeways and skies.

If Amtrak survives, I'll personally be looking forward to the day high-speed trains travel from downtown St. Paul to Milwaukee and Chicago.
posted by mrbula at 7:12 AM on July 26, 2001

just too expensive. it would be cool to take the train into chicago some time, but i'm a college student, fer chrissakes.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:20 AM on July 26, 2001

Rail is economic in Europe...

No it isn't. Not in the sense of being financed from immediate revenues alone. I don't believe the rail system of any western European nation is self-financing. Most heavily rely upon governments' funding. Those governments believe, to a greater or lesser extent, that subsidisation of rail transport is a worthwhile investment in national infrastructure, however - just as road building and maintenance is.

The folly of attempting to make a country's railways self-financing through privatisation is amply demonstrated by the fiasco that the UK's rail system has become since Thatcher tried it.
posted by normy at 7:33 AM on July 26, 2001

One thing Amtrak has done right recently is to add connector services between cities not serviced by tracks and trains. A few years ago, in order to get from Dallas to New Orleans by train, you had to connect through ... wait for it ... Chicago!

Why any bus-taking-type would take an Amtrak bus instead of a Greyhound is beyond me, since it's much more expensive. So, independent of Amtrak's other shortcomings, the buses are a transportation non-factor. But for people who might actually want to take a train trip, but can't because "you can't get there from here," this is at least a step.

Amtrak puts too much of its (pitiful) resources into the east and west coasts, and maybe the Chicago area. It's sort of a chicken/egg thing, but I really wish they would work on "creating new markets" in other parts of the country, too. Does the rest of America eschew trains-as-transportation for cultural reasons, or because they just don't have access?
posted by mudbug at 10:01 AM on July 26, 2001

Long distance trains are strictly a tourist thing, for people with time on their hands they'd rather spend looking out the window rather than on the slopes or the beach. It cannot under circumstances justify subsidy, any more than first class airplane tickets can.

Corridor trains are great, but they are limited by the fact that they only get you there a little faster than driving, and then you arrive at your destination, still needing local transit. If you happen to be going somewhere where you can get along without a car (Chicago, Boston, Washington, NYC, Philadelphia, the urban-core Bay Area), or you're a kid getting picked up by Mom and Dad, cool. Otherwise, you have to rent a car. That adds to the expense and the time, even if there are car rental agencies near the station.

For example, no one in his right mind would take a corridor train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and then rent a car, when you could either (a) drive in 5 hours and have your car, or (b) fly in 1 hour and rent a car.

My view is that the only economically viable corridor is the Eastern Seaboard, because of the pervasive non-driving character of the cities, and the fact that all of the major stations (Back Bay, Penn Station NYC, Philadelphia, and Union Station) are also regional transit train hubs and subway centers as well.

Maybe there could be an upper midwest system hubbing on Chicago, with five spokes: Milwaukee-Chicago, Minneapolis-Chicago, Cincinatti-Indianoplis-Chicago, and Detroit-Cleveland-Chicago, but that's dicey.
posted by MattD at 10:34 AM on July 26, 2001

but they are limited by the fact that they only get you there a little faster than driving

I would question that. real high speed rail means halfing auto distances. The original TGV, Paris<>Lyon is two hours and is roughly the same distance as Boston<>NYC or Washington<>NYC. The problem, at least in the northeast, is that the run is almost continuous suburb, so I'm not sure if you can design track/equiptment to do 160-200mph for 1.25 hours straight (Most of the distance between Paris and Lyon is beautiful farm country, so the Midwest routes are, arguably, more viable). Still, I would like to see what happened if the entire Senate Transportation Committee (or whatever it's called) and the equivalent in certain States would spend a week in France with an SNCF pass. Americans, by and large, don't "get" trains.
posted by ParisParamus at 10:45 AM on July 26, 2001

I love Amtrak. It's fun, it's relaxing, and it's classier than any other way to travel. And I never use it. As an example, the vacation from which I arrived home yesterday evening:

Seattle -> Yosemite and back, around 1000 miles:
by car: 17.5 hours, $140 in gas, $60 for a motel (each way), total $260
by Amtrak: 27.5 hours; two passengers, total $740

Every time I look into Amtrak, this is how it works out. It's never even close! It simply isn't a realistic transportation option. It's always dramatically slower, more expensive, and less convenient than any other way to get wherever I'm going. My fond memories of Amtrak trips past mean nothing - it just doesn't make sense.

I don't know what Amtrak thinks they're competing with.

posted by Mars Saxman at 12:33 PM on July 26, 2001

My cross-country Amtrak trips were the best travelling experience I've had despite the fact that the trains were regularly 2 - 3 hours behind schedule and the snack bar is desperately over priced. However, you adapt by making the train trip part of the vacation and bringing along enough snackies to take you through. I read at least a third of Hunter S. Thompson's literary output on my last Chicago - Denver trip. Something I would not have time to do if I flew. The trip provides an opportunity to segue into and out of vacation mode - nice! The fares are affordable if you spend some time planning and buy several months in advance.
posted by BoyWithFez at 1:39 PM on July 26, 2001

BoyWithFez: that's all well and good (and enjoyable). But the question is how/whether/why can't get its act together in the densely populated areas where it should be breaking even, if not making some money.
posted by ParisParamus at 1:59 PM on July 26, 2001

Even ViaRail (Canada) has drastically cut back personnel, trains, and routes in the last ten years. Via seems to have it all over Amtrak in terms of service, though. Good meals, frequent drink service, and cordial conductors.

Amtrak is inconvenient in some areas, to say the least. I live in Detroit, and in order to get *anywhere* via Amtrak, I have to take the train to Chicago first, then proceed to my destination.

The cost is also prohibitive....I remember back in what, 1987?, when Northwest Flight 255 crashed at Metro Airport. My friend was scheduled to fly to Las Vegas that Summer for a bowling tournament. The crash scared her off air travel, so she called Amtrak. Now, the average cost of a flight to Vegas was around $350 at the time. A round-trip Amtrak ticket, she found out, was in the neighborhood of $700. That, mind you, was only for a seat. If she wanted a sleeper, that was an extra $399. Needless to say, she quickly overcame her fear of flying.
posted by Oriole Adams at 5:09 PM on July 27, 2001

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